Person of Interest "Prisoner's Dilemma" Review: Past, Present, and Prison

Person of Interest S02E12: "Prisoner's Dilemma"

Here's an instrumental version of The Who's "Eminence Front" to listen to while reading.

Guys, last night's Person of Interest. Was. So. Awesome. "Prisoner's Dilemma" was easily the best episode of the season and joins the pantheon of the series' greatest episodes that also includes "Firewall," "Many Happy Returns," "Flesh and Blood," and yeah, I'll say it, "Baby Blue" (for the lulz of course). Except there's a distinct possibility that it could have been even better than those.

This episode was so dense that three-quarters of the way through it, I stood up and gave it a standing ovation because so much had happened that anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours could have passed. "Eminence Front" by The Who started blasting, Reese was walking out of jail, and it just had that feeling of an epic ending. Except it wasn't over yet. And that perfectly encapsulates what this episode accomplished. SO MUCH STUFF was happening at once that undivided attention was mandatory just to keep up. But there was no struggle to keep your eyes fixed on the TV because the density wasn't overwhelming (as the show can be at times). Instead, it was enthralling. So many parts worked together in unison, and the tone was excellent, resulting an episode that all episodes of Person of Interest can learn from. I want to run this episode on repeat on every single television in my house non-stop for the next week. I have an unhealthy appreciation for "Prisoner's Dilemma." It was *gulp* perfect.

If you hang around these parts then you know that last week, my big complaint about the Finch-centric and Reese-less "2πR" was that it was a missed an opportunity to examine who the Finch really is through flashbacks or backstory. That's something that Person of Interest did so well in its first season, but that it's slowed down on in Season 2. "Prisoner's Dilemma" had a similar setup to "2πR" but flipped it; Reese was the main focus and Finch, though integral to the story, mostly chilled in the background while showing off his 1337 hacking skills. But "Prisoner's Dilemma" didn't shy away from flashbacks, allowing us to get to know Reese—and his old partner Kara Stanton—a little bit better. Despite the proliferation of knee-cappings, exploding cars, and throat punches, Person of Interest is never better than when it shines a little light into the dark corners of Reese's past, and it was so sweet to have that back after a long break.

Unlike just about every other single episode of Person of Interest, "Prisoner's Dilemma" wasn't about a number (though the writers found a really fun way to stick it in there; more on that later). It was about getting Reese out of FBI custody. Clueless FBI goon Donnelly tasked Carter to use her experience as a military interrogator to question the four suspects the FBI was holding in hopes of weeding out "The Man in the Suit." And man was it tense! Here were four guys in the custody of the FBI who were all lying about their identities, so it was a game of whose fake alibi could hold up the longest. Suspects were slowly taken away as their true identities surfaced, limiting the options for who the man in the suit could be.

On top of that, Pennsylvania Two (the government dude who wants to clean up lingering evidence connected to the murder of Alicia Corwin) wanted the Man in the Suit dead and knew only that the FBI had four suspects in custody. He speed-dialed his henchman Hersh, who—completely batshit goon that he is—walked into a park and fired his gun in the air so the cops would throw him into the same prison that was holding Reese and the three other suspects. Was it ludicrous? Yes. Was Hersh getting tossed into jail and wandering the prison yard later ready to shank Reese later that afternoon ridiculous? Absolutely. But it was perfectly in bounds for Person of Interest, a series that knows its audience forgives small leaps of believability.

It was walls closing in on Reese, which is how it should be, with Finch maintaining Reese's alibi through pretend offices and MS-Painted legal documents and Elias (ELIAS!) keeping Hersh off Reese in the yard because as it turns out, Elias is one cool dude who knows which slices of bread to keep buttered. And then there was Carter, who had to walk the line between convincingly putting the clamps on Reese to keep Donnelly satisfied and not prodding too much so as to expose Reese.

But the writers didn't waste the situation and instead turned it into one of the most revealing moments of the show. The alibi Finch crafted for Reese was so effective because it's similar to Reese's true past, meaning Reese could simply tell the truth (or close to it) when asked about his life to support his alibi. Carter picked up on this, and curious kitten she is, used the opportunity to learn a bit more about the mysterious man she's been working with. It was riveting television watching this game-within-a-game, and just to keep us off our toes and keep the mystery alive, we're still not actually sure whether the stories Reese told are true. Did we get to know him better, or did we just fall deeper into the mystery? That's the whole point, and the ambiguity is vital to Reese's character and our appreciation of him. IS THIS GUY BATMAN OR WHAT?!?!

But, as they say in infomercials, that's not all! Reese's flashbacks shed light on his dysfunctional partnership with Stanton, and if we weren't sure already, we learned that Stanton makes our psycho ex-girlfriends look completely sane. She's equal in super-spy skill to Reese but just a wee bit wacky and up for total immersion in her role, which may or not mean banging Reese senseless. This woman has all the stability of a can of Dr. Pepper used as a Shake Weight, and in the present time she had revenge on her plate too as she hunted down those responsible for her attempted murder. You know, back in China when the government sent a couple hundred tons of explosives to meet her and Reese at their last-known location in the excellent episode "Matsya Nyaya."

So it was hardly shocking that after appearing in a series of flashbacks throughout "Prisoner's Dilemma," Stanton would show up to free Reese after he was re-captured by Donnelly. BANG BANG a couple slugs in Donnelly's head, and the episode ended with Stanton tranquilizing Reese and hauling him off for who knows what. I probably missed something, because I still don't know exactly what Stanton wants with Reese. Her first priority is with the government jerks that tried to kill the both of them, but she's probably none too pleased with Reese because he's guilty by association and because he never said anything about his orders to kill her. It sets up a third straight episode in which Reese will be held prisoner, but I have no problem with that because the story, which has been dormant for so long, is moving forward fast.

And I haven't even gotten to Fusco, who had the greatest two-minute fractured storyline in television history. Seriously, this guy wasn't even on screen for the length of a commercial break and it was one of the best things ever. Fusco was tasked with helping the episode's person of interest, real-life leggy blonde supermodel Karolina Kurkova, and the amount of trouble he got himself into during his interstitials as Finch checked in with him was hilarious. The first time we saw him, he was complaining about babysitting some number until he saw who it belonged to. Later, he was being maced by the supermodel because she thought he was stalking her. Then he was in the middle of a firefight with Armenian mobsters while bravely protecting her. Finally, he was thanked with a kiss for saving her life and his abbreviated hero's arc was complete. All this while Finch ended every conversation he had with Fusco by hanging up right when Fusco needed help the most. This was Person of Interest embracing its cartoonish side and providing the comedy that it does so well without invading the intensity of the main story.

But where "Prisoner's Dilemma" really impressed was with its ability to use its network of good guys, bad guys, and sorta-good guys to its advantage. The web of villains and heroes the series has been spinning for a season and a half isn't an easy one to navigate, but every time an episode strengthens the network, it becomes easier to understand. We've endured a lot of establishment (Snow! Quinn! Root! Pennsylvania Two! Elias! Stanton! Ingram! Corwin! Donnelly! Simmons!), and now it finally feels like the show can move forward with confidence because all the pieces are firmly in place.

"Prisoner's Dilemma" was as complete an episode of Person of Interest as there's ever been. When the show is at its best, it's entertaining from several different angles. It's intense, whether the intensity comes from action or interrogations. It's expansive, unraveling the complex story and mysteries behind its central characters. And it's damn funny, surprising its audience with self-aware humor that's disarming. "Prisoner's Dilemma" hit all these marks without wasting a second, creating an episode with a forward momentum that could not be stopped by anything. Simply outstanding, and right up there with "Firewall."


– Though Fusco's storyline was great, the single funniest part of the episode was Finch armed and ready to bust into prison and break Reese out. It looks like he's gotten a little familiar with the ins and outs of grenade launchers!

– Awwwww, Bear misses his daddy!

– If I'm 'shipping this show, I make Reese and Stanton a couple over Reese and Zoe Morgan. Stanton may be 10 types of crazy, but she's hawwwwt. And their kids would be ass-kicking superstars.

– Carter opened up a bit in the interrogation, talking about her past. Was she telling the truth? Probz.

– I'm really going to miss Donnelly—he's like the bumbling Charlie Brown of the FBI. But it was his time to go, and the series is in no shortage of potential enemies for Reese and Finch.

Follow writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

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